mon 22/07/2024

Duke Bluebeard's Castle/Rite of Spring, ENO | reviews, news & interviews

Duke Bluebeard's Castle/Rite of Spring, ENO

Duke Bluebeard's Castle/Rite of Spring, ENO

A masterly Bluebeard, where 'relevant' opera becomes revelant

Clive Bayley and Michaela Martens: 'The Bluebeard director has ripped from the pages of modern newspapers one of the most vital questions of today'photograph Johan Persson/ENO

There are horrors in the world so vile that few of us want to think about them. None more so than such cases as Josef Fritzl - or Jaycee Lee Dugard, or Arcedio Alvarez, or Raymond Gouardo, or Wolfgang Priklopil, or Marc Dutroux... but you get the picture. Cases where men abduct girls and turn them into sex slaves and father multiple children by them, often incestuously, hiding them in garages, basements, behind walls, sometimes for decades undiscovered, sometimes murdering them.

Mostly you read that it happened, you shudder, and try not to think more about it. Impossible if you go to ENO’s new production of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.

Béla Bartók’s fantastical opera, first produced in 1918, is a mysterious encounter between two fairytale characters, Duke Bluebeard and his new wife Judith, in which she gradually discovers that his castle is filled with not only riches, but bloodstained weapons, lakes of tears, and finally the bodies of his former wives. Even the original 1697 story was full of forbidden thrills, and its inventor Charles Perrault made sure it ended with the bride’s rescue in the nick of time. As Marina Warner points out in From the Beast to the Blonde, her analysis of fairy tales, it was rapidly recast misogynistically as a cautionary tale about wifely curiosity, rather than about a man’s sexual perversion.

Bartok and his librettist Béla Balázs took a feminist line in their treatment, portraying Judith as a seeker after experience and adventure, suggesting the castle was a metaphor for a ripe and rich erotic fantasy into which she goes open-eyed, leaving the Duke an enigmatic, sketched figure who vocally takes a side seat to the overwhelming sensory suggestiveness of the orchestral score. But at ENO Kramer has decisively and brutally tilted the forensic spotlight onto Bluebeard, in a master-stroke where "relevant" opera-production becomes revelant. The director has ripped from the pages of modern newspapers one of the most vital questions of today, which is just how far and appallingly men will go to define and license their own desires.

It’s a pity to give away too much about this production because this works its repellent brilliance by a series of terrible shocks that I feel are fully merited by both the score and the lyrics - notably the interpretation of the words "They're alive", as applied to Bluebeard's former wives. Here be not ghosts but real horrors.

It begins bleakly with a streetlamp over a blue door and a middle-aged, seedy-looking man in a dusty blue suit and foppishly curled hair tentatively leading a woman, who is barefooted and in a silk party dress, as if she just left her shoes at the rave back there where her friends are. Her breasts pop out of her dress, she is avid for him, while he is frigid and yet quivering with anticipation. Behind the door in the black wall and below ground is a setting by Giles Cadle that looks like a crime scene from Wire in the Blood, a garage streaked with rust or dried blood, lit evilly by Peter Mumford by a few shafts of light from the street above.

This is a nasty place already, and it gets worse, as its walls are false, and the contents are human. Kramer proposes that Bluebeard is a man of viciously arrested development, whose childhood toys are centrally important to him, and who sees his “kingdom” of wives and child-wives as all part of his play. From early on Clive Bayley plays Bluebeard with a peculiarly weird glee, fearful but electrically aroused, pecking towards Judith with stabs of his hands, shunning real embraces, but then suddenly grovelling in dreadful convulsions of neediness, sobbing, “Love me, Judith, love me.” It’s a wholly convincing, Cracker-keen analysis of how such a man might be.

Perhaps early on in last night’s premiere Bayley overdid the jerky weirdness, but I suspect this is a terrifying role to play, and maybe overacting was a bit of defence-building to help him survive to the spectacularly horrible end. At any rate, I was frozen to my bones by this psycho-drama, absolutely convinced by its atmosphere, and full of admiration for Edward Gardner's luxuriant conducting, underscoring this man's feverishly coloured imagination. Bayley deserves a medal in particular. With less to sing but a hideous burden to act, the baritone carries this production, though the mezzo Michaela Martens is another interesting character study as Judith, blowsy and generous, but with a modern robustness to her.  She even seems momentarily to turn social worker-cum-investigator as she opens more and more doors. Why she finally joins him, though, Martens’ acting didn’t convey to me, and Kramer’s pay-off depends on her getting that nuance right. The audience was too horrified to applaud for several very long seconds.

Keegan-Dolan’s choreography is largely walk-dance, punctuated by testosterone-fuelled outbursts of ritual thrash-dance

There are more newspaper cuttings on offer in the staging of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that makes the second half of the bill. Here it’s the rural Ireland of dog-fighting, Catholic repression, violent males, sexual frustration, smuggling - the clichés keep coming in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s choreography, which is largely walk-dance, punctuated by testosterone-fuelled outbursts of ritual thrash-dance where men hump the soil, or strip naked and put on girls' dresses. Cardboard boxes turn out to contain masks for hares and hounds - no prizes for guessing right: girls are hares, boys are hounds.

The music, written roughly at the same time as the Bartók, is a well contrasted sound-world to make a double bill with, its rhythmic propulsion far away from Bluebeard’s washes and rains. But although Gardner controlled the pit with steadily rising power for the dancers, I’ve seen too many far superior choreographies with this music to think this anything other than right feeble.

We know something rotten’s got to happen to someone, and in that sense it reflects the partnering opera. But Stravinsky's music travels like an express train to one climactic orgasm, and in Keegan-Dolan's version there are as many likely victims in sequence as a Hercule Poirot mystery. As it turned out that the young man who got stripped by the other guys wasn’t going to be the victim,  nor was the old man to be lynched, nor were the girls wearing hares’ heads, and that the witch wasn’t going to get it either, I rapidly stopped caring. By the end, no one was dead, raped, thrown out, tortured or walled up alive. What a let-down.

Keegan-Dolan has done much better things, such as his Walpurgisnacht episode in the Royal Opera’s Faust, and a  fey Irish Giselle that had many of last night’s characters in it, but more richly choreographed and tellingly imagined.

It’s a pity to give away too much about this production because it works its repellent brilliance by a series of terrible shocks

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I couldn't have put it better - indeed i haven't

I saw it on the 25th. I feel very much in agreement with the review regarding Bluebeard. The production was a disturbing and persuasive re-imagining, the acting was a cut above what is all-too-often on offer in operatic productions, and the orchestra, in particular, was a highlight. The denouement was genuinely shocking, and had all-the-greater an impact because it was utterly consistent with the thematic arc of the narrative. But the Rite... A dull version with almost no dancing of interest, and, worst of all, an orchestral performance best described as polite. A charitable reaction might be that it was an effective counterpart to the muted, uninspiring action onstage, and that perhaps it might have been meant to reflect the sense of unfulfilled sexuality conveyed through the choreography. But perhaps the orchestra, like the poor unfortunate violinist who managed loudly to scrape open strings in a crucial rest, simply wasn't on top of the material.

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